Mental health & the fashion industry
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
Please be advised that this post is a discussion of sensitive topics surrounding mental health issues, including suicide. If you find yourself in need of support, or know of someone who is, there is help out there (links at the bottom of this post).
The world of fashion is often romanticised, as we often associate the industry with excess, excitement, and endless partying. However, underneath the happy and successful veneer can lie a much less glossy reality. Working within the industry are men and women with anxieties and insecurities, just like you and I.
According to the Mental Health Foundation “two thirds of us experience a mental health problem in our lifetimes and stress is a key factor in this. By tackling stress, we can go a long way to tackle mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and, in some instances, self-harm and suicide.”
Mental health and creativity
Working within the fashion industry involves a unique set of pressures that are not always conducive to positive mental or physical health, leaving individuals vulnerable to developing mental health issues or exacerbating existing problems.
But what is it about the world of fashion that cultivates this vulnerability to mental health problems?
Do creative industries, like fashion, contribute to mental health problems, or are individuals with existing mental health problems attracted to the industry?
There is a long-held stereotype linking creativity and psychopathology (think Van Gogh, and Plath, and more recently Robin Williams). However, despite these prevalent beliefs, this stereotype is not necessarily supported by the research. For example:
A 2008 empirical study examining the relationship between the phenomenology of the creative process and psychopathological and personality characteristics in a sample of artists from a range of disciplines did not support such an association.
A 2012 study investigating if creativity is associated with psychiatric disorders or restricted to those with psychotic features, found that except for bipolar disorder, individuals with overall creative professions were not more likely to suffer from investigated psychiatric disorders than controls.
A 2007 study examining the psychiatric morbidity stress profile, coping skills and personality profile in creative versus non-creative populations found that there was no difference between creative and non-creative groups in terms of mental illness and stress profile.
While these studies do not examine creatives in fashion per se, it is hard to disagree that the industry attracts creative types. Whether such discrepancies stem from the lack of a reliable measure of creativity, or the reliance on anecdotal, auto/biographical evidence (therefore, lack of control groups), the link between fashion and mental health is a complex one.
Despite the literature's failure to support an association, it is hard to overlook the perilous path that has been tragically taken, demonstrated in a number of reported incidences of high profile industry burnouts and suicides.
Life of a designer
The industry revolves around constant reinvention, with designers being confronted with a bursting fashion calendar that incorporates haute couture shows, runway, and cruise collections, men’s and womenswear. Add to that diffusion lines, such as handbags, shoes and perfume, not to mention the expectations associated with socialising. The required long hours, tight deadlines, high standards, stress, competition, and criticism, inevitably bring about a huge amount of physical and psychological stress.
Not only can designers find themselves sapped of their creativity, but the high pressure and expectations mixed with the impractical workload is simply not sustainable, creating a potent recipe that drives many to substance abuse, anxiety and depression.
While undoubtedly some thrive within such environment, others unfortunately succumb to the pressures of the industry. The revered Karl Lagerfeld compared working in fashion to bullfighting, “If you are not a good bullfighter, don’t enter the arena. Fashion is a sport now: You have to run.” Designer Rick Owens shares a similar view, stating “I don’t really see a problem: I tend to look at these things as evolutionary. I feel stimulated… and busy hands are happy hands.”
Overseeing 32 collections a year between Dior and his own label, Galliano was left “emotionally, spiritually, physically, mentally bankrupt,” relying on drink and drugs to help him switch off.
In an interview with Vanity Fair Galliano reported “I had all these voices in my head, asking so many questions. I was afraid to say no, I thought it showed weakness... I was going to end up in a mental asylum or six feet under.”
McQueen’s workload had been attributed to have directly contributed to the decline in his mental state, however he was also dealing with the suicide of one of his closest friends, designer Isabella Blow, and the recent death of his mother. McQueen had been reportedly suffering from anxiety and depression for at least three years and sadly he took his own life in 2010, following 2 previous attempts.
According to McQueen’s psychiatrist, "He certainly felt very pressured by his work, but it was a double-edged sword,.. He felt it was the only area of his life where he felt he had achieved something."
For the likes of Lagerfeld and Owens, the fashion system may work, but for others, it needs to be made known that there are options. Designers should, and are able to work in an environment that is healthy, enabling them to flourish creatively and mentally.
Design duo Viktor&Rolf are testament to this, leaving the fast-paced world of ready-to-wear to concentrate solely on couture and perfume, stating that “The speed at which it has to be done does not help us. We are reflective people and we need time to create.” Tunisian designer Azzedine Alaïa also abandoned the show schedule, refusing to the industry’s expectations, deciding to present only when he feels his collections are ready.
The world of modelling
Unsurprisingly, models don’t fare too well within this environment either. What is often viewed as a ‘glitz and glamour’ lifestyle, full of travel, is instead marked by unattainable weight and beauty standards, criticism, rejection and abuse, and a demanding social agenda, being at odds with good mental health.
A 2007 study comparing models and young people in different occupations found that despite their earning power and status as icons of beauty, the models rated lower on measures of happiness, psychological fulfilment and feelings of competence than their counterparts. Models also reported feeling that they lacked control, being ordered about by clients, used as clothes horses and valued for their looks rather than their skills. This fuelled their obsession with weight, dieting and the quest for size zero.
The fashion industry is known for valorising youth. Oftentimes, young and vulnerable individuals are placed in situations that they may not fully understand, or feel comfortable with. Beginning a modelling career at just 14, one model (who has chosen to reman anonymous) has reported her experiences stating that “I was 5'11" and size 8-10 and they told me I had to lose 3cm off my hips. They phoned me up every day and asked me what I had eaten that day. I'd go in for a chat and they'd measure me and say you need to lose this much more weight.”
Models are speaking out, and with huge followings that hang on to every word, many of the followers being young girls, these women’s brave admissions put a spotlight on mental health awareness!
Behind a facade of "having it all", with her multi-million pound modelling career and an internationally renowned reality show, Kendall Jenner has been very candid about her struggles with anxiety, revealing that at one point her anxiety got so bad she was forced to stop doing catwalk shows all together, revealing she was on the verge of a “mental breakdown.” In January, she described her anxiety as "debilitating" to friend Cara Delevingne in an interview for Harper’s Bazaar, admitting that she sometimes wakes up "in the middle of the night with full-on panic attacks”.
Model, singer and actress Delevingne bravely took to Twitter last year to describe her ongoing battle with depression:
"I suffer from depression and was a model during a particularly rough patch of self hatred. I am so lucky for the work I get to do but I used to work to try and escape and just ended up completely exhausting myself. I am focusing on filming and trying to learn not to pick apart my every flaw. I am really good at that.”
Author of "Size Zero: My Life as a Disappearing Model", Dauxerre warns young women of the pitfalls of modelling, describing how she survived on a diet of three apples a day, when she worked as a high-fashion model. Aged just 18, she weighed 56kg, and at 5ft 10 inches was told to lose two inches around her waist and get herself down to a size two to fit into the samples for the shows. This sparked an eight-month struggle with anorexia and later bulimia.“I thought I would control it and could do for a month or two until I had correct weight and then would eat again and it would be ok, but actually it doesn’t work like that.” After two months of extreme dieting, they said she was "perfect" at 47kg.
Dauxerre's modelling experience left her “destroyed psychologically”, as she described feeling dehumanised as a result of not being referred to by name, or even looked in the eye by many of the designers and hair and makeup artists.
I have only skimmed the surface when it comes to mental health within the fashion industry. Mental health issues are not selective. We often fail to consider the broader industry, and the strain that can be felt not only by designers and models, but also on the industries garments workers, buyers, stylists, editors, photographers, assistants, even back to the beginning with the students. Sadly, the list goes on.
Mental health is still somewhat of a taboo topic. Stigma surrounding the disclosure of mental health issues remain, with many refusing to seek help due to shame, fear, or concern for being judged. Some individuals aren't recognising their symptoms as a mental health problem, feeling they are not in need of help, while others are experiencing feelings of hopelessness, and that nothing can help them.
The issues are becoming impossible to ignore.
The fashion industry (among many others), must work to accept without exception that these conditions exist and that those affected have nothing to be ashamed of. There is still a long way to go when it comes to education, safe outlets for support, and ensuring we are on the lookout for those that need help. What may look like "having it all" from the outside, may be masking a cry for help on the inside.
If you find yourself in need of support, or know of someone who is, there is help out there.
I stumbled across the beautiful work of London based, fashion and fine art photographer, Steph Wilson (featured as the cover and the opening photogrpahs of this blog) while reading an article on Dazed. This particaulr collection, 'The Bell Curve', brings mental health issues to life.
Be sure to check out her work.